Saturday, December 8, 2007

Kiyomizu Temple in autumn colors

Last week autumn colors were at their best, especially on a perfect hazy fall day when I visited in Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto.

[Busy street leading to Kiyomizu temple, Kyoto]

It was a Monday and there were less people then ten days before, when the crowds jammed the view. At that time I evaded the noise and jostling in Kiyomizu's "secret garden," Jojuin, this time I walked the normal course.

[Shop sign near Kiyomizu temple, Kyoto]

Even after walking here many times, there are still new details to be noted, such as this shop sign of a shop selling dolls.

[The vermilion gate of Kiyomizu temple, Kyoto]

It was the first time to come here in the fullness of autumn. There was a slight drizzle, but it soon cleared.

[Jizo statue in Kiyomizu temple, Kyoto]

Another new detail was this aloof Jizo statue, standing up the stairs, just inside the gate.

[Kiyomizu temple, Kyoto]

The mist softens the contours of the surrounding mountains.

[Pupils taking each other's picture on the veranda of Kiyomizu temple]

As usual, the platform of the temple is a popular place for snapshots.

[Incense burner in Kiyomizu temple]

As is wafting incense onto any malfunctioning body parts.

[Autumn colors in Kiyomizu temple]

But then the view! The fall colors are like an embroidery on the hillside, a perfect painting in countless hues and variations.

[Autumn colors in Kiyomizu temple, Kyoto]

The branches of the trees hang like flaming torches around the temple.

[The Main Hall of Kiyomizu temple, Kyoto, in autumn]

The classical view of the temple on stilts, now resting on the soft arms of autumn.

[Tasting the spring water of Kiyomizu temple]

Another popular pastime, tasting the pure spring water that gives its name to the temple.

[Autumn leaves, Kiyomizu temple]

But today I prefer the taste of autumn, which could not be purer on this day with its intense but at the same time subdued colors.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Komainu in the Yasui Konpira Shrine, Kyoto

We'll have a look at the komainu ("lion dogs") in the Yasui Konpira Shrine - but first some history.

There used to be a temple here (Rengeko-in) with as protection a shrine in its grounds that was a branch of the famous Konpira Shrine on Shikoku. The temple moved here in 1695 and at that time also the guardian shrine was set up. A development particular to the new shrine was that to Omononushi no kami, the original deity of the Konpira Shrine, two historical figures were added as gods: Minamoto Yorimasa and Emperor Sutoku, two people who had in fact been political enemies and whose drama had played out in this area.

[Yasui Konpira Shrine]

Emperor Sutoku (1119–64) was enthroned as a small child when the real power was in the hands of the so-called Retired Emperors, in this case his great-grandfather the former Emperor Shirakawa. He was forced to abdicate at an early time, as was not unusual, but then got involved in a scheme to have his own son succeed him. This failed, his half-brother became the new Emperor Go-Shirakawa. In 1156, Sutoku conspired to depose Go-Shirakawa in what historians call the "Hogen Disturbance," but he failed and was exiled to Sanuki Province (present-day Kagawa Prefecture), where he died.

Minamoto Yorimasa (1104-1180) was an aristocrat and military leader who stood on the side of Emperor Go-Shirakawa at that time, but here in the Yasui Konpira Shrine the deified souls of both enemies have been peacefully reunited, as the Japanese think should happen after death (or are they still kicking each other in the shrine's interior?).

In ancient Japan, angry and revengeful ghosts were greatly feared, and the dead Emperor Sutoku was thought to be able to cause havoc in the form of epidemics and sudden deaths. Therefore, to pacify his soul, a temple, Komyoin Kanshoji, was set up already in 1177 in this area where his residence had once been. His mausoleum also stands a few hundred meters to the north, at the back of the Gion Kaburenjo. This pious act must have helped, for we do not hear from him for quite a while, even when the temple was destroyed with the rest of Kyoto in the Onin Wars in the late 15th century. So when Rengekoin came newly to this site in the late 17th c., it took the precaution to honor the soul of the former Emperor - a continuation of a broken-off tradition - by deifying him in the Konpira Shrine. It is a long story, but history can be quite convoluted.

After the forced separation of Buddhism and Shinto in the early Meiji-period, the temple was destroyed and only the shrine survived. It is now famous for bringing lovers together (enmusubi) but also helping them separate again if so needed (engiri).

[The rock plastered with paper slips]

There is even a large rock in front of the main hall helping out with those wishes: write your name and that of the other person on a slip of Ofuda paper, crawl through the hole from back to front with the paper in your hand and then paste it on top of the others already plastered on the stone. Want to get rid of your partner? Do the same thing, only go through the rock from the front. Nothing could be easier - no wonder this used to be a popular shrine. And for those who cannot wait to consummate their new-found love, succor is nearby in the form of a street full of seedy love hotels, a monument to the efficacy of the deity of the Yasui Konpira Shrine.

[Love hotels near the shrine]

The present "cutting off" prayer in fact finds its origin in the story of Emperor Sutoku, who after coming to Shikoku visited the main Konpira Shrine, and prayed there for a kind of Buddhist liberation, a "cutting off" of all worldly desires. The shrine was popular among the women who worked in the nearby Gion entertainment district, who often came her to pray for the "cutting off" of relations with a good-for-nothing lover.

(The tunnel]

But now to the komainu. The Yasui Konpira Shrine has the honor to posses the oldest komainu in Kyoto, vintage 1767 - really not that old in years, and therefore a sign of the relative novelty of the custom of placing stone komainu in shrines.

[Kyoto's oldest komainu, dating from 1767]

There are three pairs of komainu in the shrine: the oldest ones stand near the north exit (where the love hotels are), in front of a small Tenmangu Shrine. The faces of these lion-dogs indeed have something uncouth, as if the sculptor is still trying to find the right style!

The other komainu of the shrine have been placed in front of the eastern gate (dating from 1857) and the southern gate (1844). These last ones are quite nice, especially the one with a small horn on its head.


[Horned komainu]
Information about Yasui Konpira's komainu was gleaned from Kyoto Komainu Meguri by Onodera Yoshiaki, Nakanishiya Shuppan, 1999 (one of the foremost authorities on komainu in Japan).


Cats and gourds - Sannenzaka, Kyoto

These papier-mache cats are looking into the display window of a shop where manaki-neko sit, the cats that beckon good fortune and prosperity. I saw it on Sannenzaka near Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto.



The shop is called Hyotanya, "Gourd Shop," and is in the first place known for its hyotan, gourd flasks, used in pre-vending machine days to carry sake or other drinks. It can also be used as a flower container in the tea ceremony. Making gourd flasks is an old craft, the contents of the gourd have to be removed with a narrow scoop, then it has to be dried for five years and finally polished to a shine - the shop has been in existence for many generations, but now it seems to have shifted its focus to cat images to please the young crowds milling past...




Information about Hyotanya has been gleaned from Old Kyoto, A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants and Inns by Dianne Durston (Kodansha 1986; revised and reprinted 2005)

Furukawacho Shotengai, Kyoto

The best shotengai in Kyoto is not Nishiki, which is too full of tourists, but rather a neighborhood shopping arcade as the Furukawacho Shotengai which runs from Sanjo (starting next to Higashiyama subway station) south to Kachodori, or rather to where it is stopped by the Shirakawa River. It runs parallel to the busy Higashi-oji Street.

[Furukawacho Shotengai seen from the south side]

The arcade is very narrow, especially at the entrance and therefore a bit dark, which gives it a certain mystery. The shops are invariably small, mostly greengrocers and fishmongers, with a shop selling tofu and a number of tiny restaurants mixed in. There was also a shop selling tea, so I could stock up on bancha! Apparently, the Wakasa Kaido used to run here, bringing travelers from the Japan Sea coast north of Kyoto. In 1666 it was restored and renamed Furukawacho-dori. The shops offering daily commodities came in the Meiji period and Furukawacho became so prosperous it was even called "East Nishiki."

[The narrow shopping street]

That prosperity does not show today - here too, the graying of Japan exacts its grim toll of closed shutters, although happily the street is still alive and it is not as bad as elsewhere. But when you see that most of the shop owners are well past retirement age and that there are no younger people, the future of the Furukawacho Shotengai does not seem very bright.


[The Shirakawa River at the south end of the Furukawacho Shotengai]

Perhaps today Shotengai in Kyoto need a few tourists to survive? Furukawacho is well situated, close to Shorenin, Chionin and the Heian Shrine. Do visit Furukawacho - there is an added bonus when you exit the street on the south side and stand in front of the beautiful Shirakawa River with a typical stone bridge...

Friday, November 23, 2007

The ceramic lion-dogs of Myokendo, Kyoto

Along the path leading through the Nishi Otani Cemetery stand several small temples, one of them called Myokendo. Myoken Bosatsu was regarded as the personification of the Pole Star and worship was believed to bring prosperity, good fortune and protection from danger. He originated as an Indian Buddhist deity and in China picked up Daoist elements.

[Entrance to the Myokendo]

As stars were important for ship navigators, Myoken was worshiped by sailors. He was also seen as the guardian of horses and so more generally as a deity assisting in safe journeys. As his name means “wondrous seeing,” he became on top of that a healer of eye disease. Myoken was strongly associated with the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, apparently because he once appeared to Nichiren, coming down from the sky and landing on the branch of a tree in right front of the saint. Sometimes Myoken is depicted standing on a turtle with his sword held over his head.

[Lion dog to the right with the mouth open]

There was no statue visible in the small Myoken Hall we visited, and we came for the komainu, the lion-dogs of the shrine. These are rare because they are made of ceramic, produced in Inbe famous for its Bizen ware. They date from 1855 and are just over 70 centimeters tall. Their expressions are very delicately molded.

[Lion dog to the left with the mouth closed]

Next to the temple stood a small hall with ema, votive plates hanging under the eaves. Most of the pictures had completely faded away, only those in the front were still visible. I like the one with the three-dimensional horse, especially as it reminds me of the origin of ema, which started after all literally as “pictures of horses.”

[Ema hall with the 3D horse picture]

The Secret Garden of Kiyomizu - Jojuin, Kyoto

Kiyomizu was as crowded as we expected, completely jammed with people, but the lane leading to Jojuin was quiet and Jojuin itself almost deserted... How was that possible? Was it the location just off the beaten path, the crowds marching obliviously past following each other's backs, or was it because photography was not permitted in Jojuin, not even of its garden? Or rather, was the reason that Jojuin had no autumn colors: the small pond garden stands against the backdrop of a hill planted with evergreens, there are no maples here, therefore nor snapping cameras, only serenity.


[The left lion, with the mouth open]

First we inspected the lion-dogs of the Kiyomizu Temple, standing in front of the vermilion Niomon Gate. These are not really “komainu,” but rather Chinese lions, shishi. The imposing, almost royal statues are 170 centimeters tall and date from 1924. They are beautiful pieces of stonework, but where does this different typology come from?

[The right lion also has its mouth open]

In fact, the lions of Kiyomizu are copies of the oldest stone lion-guardians in Japan, those standing at the inside of the Nandaimon, the Great South Gate of Todaiji Temple in Nara. In front of this gate the famous, huge wooden guardians cut by Unkei and Kaikei rise up, and few people perhaps notice in the passing the stone lions placed immediately inside the gate. These date from 1196 and were carved by the Chinese sculptor Chen Heqing – one of the craftsmen invited to come to Japan from China to rebuild Todaiji which had been destroyed by the war between the Taira and the Heike.


[Close-up of the right lion - © Ad Blankestijn]

Now the style and everything else falls in place – lions of this type can also be seen at ancient Chinese imperial graves, such as the Six-Dynasty period graves dotting the surroundings of modern Nanjing. When I studied at Nanjing University, I often made cycling trips to such graves, of which only the stone statues stood forlorn in the rural countryside.


[Small stone statues]

We turn left at the Niomon Gate, walk through a quiet lane past the temple office buildings. To our right is a plot where small stone statues have been gathered. In the past these stood at road sides, but as modern traffic does not tolerate such obstacles, most of them have been destroyed – only some have been saved by bringing them to temples.

Further left stands Jojuin, the quarters in the past of Kiyomizu’s head priests, built in shoin-style. The garden I have come for lies at the north-facing veranda and consists of a pond, two islands, a planted hill to the right, and “borrowed scenery” (shakkei) right in front. The real garden is relatively small, behind the hedge at the edge of the pond is a deep valley, but the forest on the other side that embraces this garden, has been incorporated in the design. It makes the garden look like a safe haven, a secret space far from the crowds and the dust of the world.


[Entrance of Jojuin]

The garden dates from the early 17th century and has been ascribed to Kobori Enshu, but there is no proof for this. On the large island stands a stone lantern called Kagero, and to the right of that a strangely shaped stone has been placed. As it reminds one of an eboshi, the hat courtiers wore in the Heian period, it has been named "Eboshi-iwa." The hand-washing basin standing to the left before the veranda similarly evokes the long sleeves of a kimono and is called "Furisode chozubachi." The “borrowed scenery” effect has been ingeniously strengthened by placing another stone lantern in a clearing on the distant hillside, outside the garden, but creating the illusion that it forms part of it. With Entsuji, the garden of Jojuin is therefore an classic example of the shakkei technique of merging distant vistas into a small garden and so enlarging its apparent size.


[The autumn forest opposite the gate, outside Jojuin]

Jojuin has been named “The Garden of the Moon” for the beautiful image of the moon reflected on the surface of the pond. Today, the calm surface mirrors the rocks and the stone lantern, the hedges, and the green hills that lie like an embrace around this secluded spot. Photography is forbidden inside Jojuin, so you'll have to do with the photos I took outside.
Address: 294 1-chome Kiyomizu Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Tel. 075-551-1234
Access: 20 min on foot from the Gojozaka or Kiyomizumichi bus stop (bus 206 from Kyoto St)
Note: Information about Kiyomizu's stone shishi statues was gleaned from Kyoto Komainu Meguri by Onodera Yoshiaki, Nakanishiya Shuppan, 1999 (one of the foremost authorities on komainu in Japan).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tokyo Trips: Autumn in Itabashi

When you travel to Itabashi via the Mita line and see the endless ranges of giant flats on the horizon, you might mistake them for mountains. When the truth dawns upon you, you may start to feel faint at heart and doubt whether you made a good decision to come here. Don't worry: a walk of about 15 minutes from Nishi-Takashimadaira Station will bring you to the Itabashi Art Museum, standing at a quiet pond, Tameike, safe from the onslaught of the danchi.


[Great Buddha of Jorenji]

The Itabashi Art Museum is the oldest of the many art museums set up by Tokyo's wards and cities (vintage 1979). The museum only organizes special exhibitions and has no works on permanent display, so it is not a place to drop by unprepared. Check the schedule at the website, and only come when there is something of interest, because this museum will be the center of your visit to Itabashi. The museum focuses on Edo art and organizes several interesting exhibitions a year on this subject. A few years ago, for example, I saw a fascinating display of Akita Ranga, the paintings with Western ("Dutch") perspective and chiascuro made in Edo-period Akita.

On the opposite side of the pond where rustic anglers may be active, stands the Itabashi Historical Museum, which has some archeological artifacts and folklore items on display. Best is the minka standing at the back of the museum, making this a nice play to drop in for a few minutes as well.

But there is more in this area. A 5 min. walk from the museums lies the Akatsuka Botanical garden, occupying part of the grounds of the long defunct Akatsuka castle. There are more than 600 different plants and trees, as well as a garden with medicinal herbs mentioned in the Manyoshu. We visited in early winter when everything was bare, and only the fallen leaves rustled under our feet, but it was nice to walk through this park that still keeps an image of the wildness of ancient Musashino.

Our last destination was Jorenji temple. Jorenji's founding goes back many centuries, and originally it stood along the Nakasendo highway - until it had to move in 1973 to make way for an expressway. Now it stands in a corner of the old Akatsuka Castle as well, and contrary to what you might expect of a modern temple it has beautiful grounds and buildings and is a pleasure to visit.

Mentioning the Nakasendo, reminds me of the fact that in the Edo-period Itabashi was "Itabashi-juku," a post town on the highway that ran through the mountains of Central Japan to Kyoto. The post town consisted of four parts; one of these, Naka-juku, had an actuall plank bridge that gave the name "Itabashi" to the whole area. There is little post town atmosphere left in present-day Itabashi, which is a bedtown with noisy roads leading into Tokyo, but the area with the museums and botanical garden, called Akatsuka, still retains a whiff of the old flavor.

Jorenji boast several monuments and statues in its garden (such as a good modern Hotei), but it is now above all famous for its Daibutsu, its Big Buddha. Only cast in 1977, to pacify the spirits of the soldiers who died ages ago in the battles around Akatsuka Castle (did they scare the priest?), it is 22 metres high and weighs 22 tons. An Amida Buddha like its big brother in Kamakura, it cannot hold a candle to that older statue when it comes to artistic merit, but it nevertheless impresses by its peaceful countenance. A good conclusion of an autumn afternoon in Itabashi.
Itabashi Art Museum
5-34-27 Akatsuka, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo
Tel: 03-3979-3251
CL Mon, Dec 28-Jan 4
15 min walk from Nishi-Takashimadaira St on the Mita line

Itabashi Historical Museum
Tel: 03-5998-0081
CL Mon, Dec 28-Jan 4

In late winter/early spring, the Tameike pond and park are the site of the Ume (plum) festival.

Akatsuka Botanical Garden
(Manyo Yakuyo Garden)
Tel: 03-3975-9127
CL New year
16 min walk from Shimo-Akatsuka St on the Tobu Tojo Line

Jorenji Temple
5-28-3 Akatsuka, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo
30 min walk from Shimo-Akatsuka St on the Tobu Tojo Line

The temple, botanical garden and historical museum are free. Entrance to the art museum is usually 600 yen, but may depend on the exhibition.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Modern Japanese Cuisine" by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka (review)

With Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity Katarzyna J. Cwiertka has written the best book about Japanese food culture I know. It is much more than the title says: this essay is not only about modern cuisine, that is to say how the Japanese came to eat meat and other outlandish dishes, but much more importantly, it reveals how Japanese food as such was defined. Like many other “typically Japanese” cultural experiences, washoku, the “traditional” Japanese cuisine was only devised in the late 19th - 20th century, after Japan opened its gates to the world.

Take rice, which is still considered as an almost sacred, Ur-Japanese basic food: in pre-modern times rice was only eaten by a few percent of the population, the upperclasses, the rest – including those who cultivated it – could not afford it. Farmers paid their taxes in rice and only in very good years could they eat some of it, mixed with other grains and vegetables – and that was not the present-day white rice. White rice was introduced with a vengeance by the military in the Meiji-period: the boys who joined the ranks, had the privilege to eat nothing but white rice for the first time, and many of them lost their lives before they reached the battlefield, as a diet of only white rice causes beri-beri due to Vitamin B1 deficit, but that was not known yet in the early 20th c.


Meat for a vegetarian nationWestern food was introduced at state banquets during the early Meiji years, the period of "Civilization and Enlightenment," which included the lifting of the ban on meat which had been first issued in 675. Although the Japanese did eat seafood and some game, since the 16th c. the eating of meat of domesticated animals as cows was in fact taboo. That was not so much religious (Buddhist) but rather practical: draft animals were needed for food production, there was no space among the rice paddies that constituted the Japanese countryside (and were necessary for tax payments as we have seen) for even small-scale cattle husbandry. Meat was eaten seldom and then only for medicinal reasons.

Many Japanese thought those partaking of meat had a bad smell and that was undoubtedly the case with the British (who in the 19th c. ate nothing but meat, they conveniently believed vegetables were unhealthy) and other Westerners, who only on rare occasions took a bath in contrast to the clean Japanese. So it needed the authority of no one else than the Emperor to break the cultural ban: in 1872 it was officially declared that the Emperor was partaking of meat on a regular basis.

Treaty port recipes
It was still a long way to a sufficient supply of good meat and to multicultural gastronomy but here the Treaty Ports played an important part. The Westerners living in Japan of course kept their own cuisine as much as possible (they considered the “native food” as “inferior”) and taught their Japanese servants how to cook these. These cooks later set up their own restaurants, usually exclusive ones. Hotels catering to foreigners also started restaurants offering yoshoku, Western dishes, first cooked by foreign cooks, later by their Japanese apprentices. All this was rather expensive, but from the mid-twenties on large department stores as Mitsukoshi and Matsuya started setting up affordable Western-style restaurants, finally making multicultural menus available to the urban masses. Yoshoku was predominantly Anglo-Saxon, so we find beef, croquettes, rolled cabbage, omelet and of course curry rice – introduced by British expats who had served in India, but quickly made their own by the Japanese.

Military menus
The largest role not only in normalizing such multicultural dishes but also in defining the national cuisine was played by the military. After all, all Japanese males, half the population, had to serve as conscripts and eat what they were served. This experience shaped their future food preferences. The military introduced white rice as the centerpiece of the meal, as we saw, and added soy sauce as a crucial flavoring agent. They would also include miso soup. What set the military apart from the rest of the population was the inclusion of “multicultural” side dishes: popular were curries, croquettes and Chinese stir-fries. The reasons were practical: the men came from all over Japan and had different tastes where Japanese food was concerned but all liked the new, multicultural dishes. Moreover, these were easy to handle with a modern, military catering system.

Home cooking
In these years also the home meal was reformed. Women became devoted shufu, housewives of nuclear families, and they governed their katei, their home, as they were supposed to do for most of the 20th century. Not only were cooking schools established where housewives could learn modern home cooking, a host of women’s magazines also helped them on the way with recipes – there were even very popular recipe contests. But also home cooking was multicultural, it was wayo setchu ryori, “Japanese-Western fusion cuisine,” and thanks to the fact that they were eaten in the home many hybrid recipes of the early 20th c. are now nostalgically seen as the ultimate Japanese “mother’s cooking.” Also in the home, meals were structured on the traditional rice-soup-side dishes pattern, only the number of side dishes was enlarged and more variety was sought in their recipes.

Military nutrition again
The war and its aftermath of course changed everything again, with severe food shortages and rationing. It made not only the hinomaru bento popular, white rice with a red pickled plum in the middle, but also led to the acceptance of other staples than rice, notably bread and noodles. It also erased the difference in cuisine that still existed between city and countryside. Substitute foods were discovered, as the potato sandwich. The militarization of nutrition was continued after the war in civilian canteens (companies, universities) with their curries and other easy dishes and gradually became mainstream civilian culture.

Imperialist cuisine
Japanese imperialism during the first half of the 20th c. had another effect on food culture: the embracing of Chinese food as the third pillar of Japanese cuisine, together with Western and Japanese dishes. Ramen noodles already became popular in the thirties, although they differed from Japanese cuisine with their stock of chicken or pork broth instead of soups based on kelp or katsuo (bonito). It was the imperialist expansion into China that helped popularize Chinese food in Japan. And after the war this was reinforced by the fact that many now unemployed soldiers knew how to cook Chinese. They started making gyoza dumplings, a product of wheat flower which in contrast to rice was still available - moreover, dumplings can be filled with about anything, which also came in handy in that period of shortages.

Korean food, by the way, was a different matter. Kimch’i was only accepted in the nineties, during a Korea Boom due to the Seoul Olympics and later a popular television series. But already in the years of food shortage after the war, yakiniku, grilled meat, became popular (first as horumon-yaki, using tripe and offal). Koreans in fact played a large role in the popularization of meat in Japan – another fact is that in the early 20th c. most meat eaten in Japan was imported from Korea, another culinary consequence of imperialism.

Postwar Affluence
Affluence in the second half of the 20th century brought huge dietary changes of its own. Now Japan became the willing victim of American "cultural imperialism," a fascination which led to hamburgers, pizza and French fries, rice cookers and refrigerators, frozen foods and instant foods, McDonalds (so common in Japan that Japanese kids think it is native – it was introduced in 1971 by Fujita Den) and Starbucks. Bread was further popularized at school lunches, and milk and dairy products also became popular. Dining out became pastime number one and family restaurants as Denny's proliferated. Home cooking suffered, but was made infinitely easier by all pre-cooked products now becoming available. In the same period, Japan's cuisine, in the form of sushi and teppanyaki, gradually started going global.

The Construction of a National Cuisine
What Cwiertka so aptly shows us, is that Japanese cuisine “is a modern construct conceived in the midst of the 20th century's historical dynamics.” Washoku, while presented as something timeless and unchanging, is a modern invention - although resting upon traditional foundations. One such foundation is of course kaiseki, the meal taken during the tea ceremony that was reconstituted in the 20th c. by chefs as Yuki Teiichi into an extravagant “authentic Japanese” dining experience. The arrangement of foods on dishes in kaiseki even influenced Japanese home cooking in the first half of the 20th c.

What it all serves to demonstrate is that Japanese food culture is not exotic, unique or even traditional – Japanese national cuisine was devised and defined in the 20th century and Modern Japanese Cuisine unveils the story behind that process.

Monday, September 3, 2007

"Sanyan Stories" by Feng Menglong (review)

The Chinese author Feng Menglong lived from 1574 to 1645, in what is now Wuxian (near Suzhou) in middle China. He was a writer who mainly edited and compiled histories, novels, story collections and even almanacs. As such he was an important popularizer, making classical stories available to a wider public. At that time there flourished already an urban culture in China and books were printed as a commercial venture (after all, China invented book printing long before Gutenberg). But Feng Menglong also added many stories of his own.


His most important works are the three story collections known as "The Three Words" (Sanyan Stories): Gujin Xiaoshuo ("Stories Old and New," later renamed "Illustrious Words to Instruct the World"), and its two sequels. These stories are, with a modern term, very "naturalistic," they show people blinded by lust or ignorance so that they commit enormous crimes. Retribution is always shift and merciless. The first collection of 40 stories was published in 1620. It has been called a pivotal work in the development of vernacular fiction in China.

What makes the stories so attractive is the detailed depiction of daily life. We not only meet emperors, magistrates and scholars, but also monks and nuns, courtesans, peddlers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and ghosts. It is almost like the great Dutch paintings of the 17th century, which also show you daily life and ordinary people. The streets of Ming-China come miraculously alive in these tales (although most of the tales have been placed in the Song-Dynasty, in order to evade criticism by the authorities that might follow if Feng wrote about his own times).

I first read Feng Menglong in Dutch, in the translation of Wilt Idema, my Professor of Chinese Literature at Leiden University. His first volume of eight tales, called "The Ape of Lust" (De Aap van Begeerte) was published in 1973. Later he translated another 5 tales in "The Three Words" (1976, De Drie Woorden). Unfortunately, these Dutch books have long since vanished from bookshops and are even difficult to find secondhand. That is a pity, as Idema's translations are racy and very vernacular, while remaining also true to the diction of the original Chinese text. (See below for an English translation of Feng Menglong).

Feng Menglong's stories are a long cry from Zen. His personages are chained to the Wheel of Samsara by lust, desire, hatred, anger, ambition, avarice, ignorance and what-have-you-not. People kill as easily as smashing an insect, sons even do their parents in. Their is no morality in these people, and the only meager solace we get is that a sort of combined Buddhist-Confucian retribution follows, which restores order and sets the balance of Heaven right again. That, too, is only a naturalistic process. Feng Menglong demonstrates how, under the wrong circumstances, perfectly ordinary persons can sometimes become monsters.

Many of the stories are crime tales, although we do not meet Judge Dee (who belongs to the earlier Tang-Dynasty), but Judge Bao (Bao Zhen), who, in fact, in China was and is a much more famous figure than Judge Dee.

In Feng Menglong's stories, terrible crimes start from the most insignificant of causes, and when the chain of causality has been started, we see that humans are nothing but the powerless slave of their own "ape of lust." Feng tells his bizarre stories with detachment and even cynicism, at the same time mixing in humor by imitating the naive style of the vernacular story teller.
There is a good English translation called Sanyan Stories, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (Washington University Press).

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Chugen (Japanese Customs)

Chugen (or o-chugen) now refers to the mid-year gift-giving season, but in China the term originally meant the 15th day of the 7th month.

It was a day to celebrate the well-being during the first half of the year of friends and acquaintances, and at the same time people believed that it was auspicious to entertain someone on this day.


As it was traditionally held around the same time as o-bon, it was also a time to honor the ancestors.

Those beautiful religious (Buddhist and Daoist) connotations are now forgotten in the superficial commercialism that only serves to help department stores survive (there is a second gift-giving season at the end of the year, o-seibo).

Send your gifts (with expensively packaged food items you can never go wrong) from early to mid-July to those who have supported you professionally or privately - business relations, teachers, guarantors - always your superiors.

Department stores and other shops set up special sections where you can select chugen items and have them forwarded directly to the recipient.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Hozugawa-kudari, "Shooting the Rapids in Kyoto"

The Hozu River is the designation for the upstream section of the Katsura River, between the Hozu Bridge in Kameoka City and the Togetsu Bridge in Arashiyama. The river originates in the Tanba mountains and finally, south of Kyoto, flows into the Yodo River. It changes name three times, because the upper reaches above Kameoka are called Oi River. Kameoka, a city of 85,000 in the basin NW of Kyoto, used to be a commercial center and a post town. In the 16th c. it was ruled by Akechi Mitsuhide, the warlord who eventually killed Nobunaga.

[Two of the three boatmen of the Hozugawa-kudari trip]

The Hozu River is about 16 kilometers long and snakes its way through the highland between Mt Atago and Oinosaka, at an elevation of 400 meters. It has carved out a deep gorge with sharp V-curves, strange rocks and fantastic cliffs. Although it was already used for the transport of goods to the capital in the Heian period, concentrated shipping only became possible in 1606, after engineering work under the direction of Suminokura Ryoi.

[Shooting into the canyon]

Swift, flat-bottomed wooden boats would transport rice, vegetables and firewood from the regions north of Kyoto to the capital. The boats were brought back by towing them, a laborious process taking five hours. Some parts of the tow path laid out by Suminokura are still visible, as are the rearrangements of rocks to make the river passable. One huge rock was even split apart by heating it and then pouring water on it.

[On the riverbank are still parts of the old tow path
for pulling the boats back to Kameoka]

The transport boats lost their job when the railroad between Kyoto and Kameoka was built around 1900, but about fifteen years later they had transformed themselves into a flourishing tourist industry - which today is going stronger than ever. "Shooting the rapids," the Hozugawa-kudari as it is called in Japanese, takes between 75 and 120 minutes, depending on the force of the stream and the season.

[Steering the boat]

The flat-bottomed boats are operated by three people, two with a long bamboo pole in the front and back to push off against the rocks, a third one to row when the stream is not forceful enough to carry the boat along. The ride is beautiful for its scenery, especially in sunny weather, from springtime with cherry blossoms along the banks, through autumn with its red maple leaves. For an extra thrill, the boatmen steer the small craft on purpose at a short distance of the sharp rocks, but the only real danger are falling stones and the splashing waves.

[Gliding through the fresh green of late April]

As usually in such situations, the human imagination has worked its Rorschach fantasy on the rocks along the way, and so we have frog and lion rocks, a mirror rock and a screen rock. You will also see the Lord's Fishing Spot, where Akechi Mitsuhide used to angle. In one spot stripes on the rocks are pointed out as being the traces of the tow ropes. In other places, where the boats are regularly pushed off with the bamboo sticks, indents are visible in the rocks, and it is the pride of the "pusher" to hit the exact spot. There are several bridges over the river, for the present railroad to Kameoka and beyond, and for a touristic train ride (Torokko Resha) with open cars that runs between Sagano and Kameoka over the old railroad.

[The Torokko open train and carp streamers]

Suminokura Ryoi (1554-1614) was a wealthy merchant from Kyoto. In the 1590s Hideyoshi granted him a license for overseas trade with what is now Vietnam. This endeavor brought in huge profits for Suminokura and his son Soan - until the Tokugawas closed the country in 1635. Suminokura Ryoi used his fortune to open various rivers around Kyoto for commercial navigation (and new profits), the most important ones being the present Hozu River and the Takasegawa Canal he had dug along the Kamo River (which was too erratic in its water levels to use for regular transport services) south to the Yodo River.

[Statue of Suminokura Ryoi in Kameyama Park]

A statue of Suminokura stands in the Kameyama Park along the Hozu River. It is in a rather heavy, almost Socialist-Realist style - as a Chinese "hero of the people." On the opposite bank stands the Daihikaku temple, built by Suminokura Ryoi as a monument to the workers who lost their lives during the sometimes dangerous labor of improving the Hozu River.

[After arrival]

Address: 1 Shimonakajima, Hozu-cho, Kameoka City (Hozugawa Pleasure Boat Association)

Tel: 0771-22-5846

Hours: 9:00-15.30 (Mon-Fri), indeterminate (Sat, Sun, NH); from Dec. 1 to March 9 only 10:00-14.30. CL Dec 29-Jan 4. Check in advance to reserve and see if there are no cancellations.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sakura in Kyoto (Nishiyama)

Although late in the season, this weekend my wife and I visited the "Saigyo sakura" in what is called the "Cherry blossom Temple," Shojiji, in the hills west of Muko City.

[Bell tower and Saigyo sakura (already without blossoms) in Shojiji]

Officially, there is only one "Saigyo sakura" - a tree planted by the medieval priest and poet Saigyo after he shaved his head to become a priest here in Shojiji. It is a third-generation tree, it is said, but it was already covered in fresh green leaves. Fortunately, around it there were still some other trees in bloom, and the best ones were the magnificent shidare-zakura at the back of the temple. These were just in full bloom!

[Shidare-zakura in Shojiji]

Besides the cherry trees, the temple also has a great collection of Buddhist statues, beautiful in all seasons: a Kamakura-period Yakushi statue not only carrying the usual medicine pot in his right hand (he is after all the Buddha of Healing), but with his other hand making a gesture as if to take some pills from that pot! The temple also has a full set of the Yakushi's attendants, the Bodhisattva's Nikko and Gekko (symbolizing the Sun and the Moon) and the Twelve Generals in comical poses. Saigyo was also present, in a Kamakura-period statue showing him as a lean and ascetic priest. All these statues stand in the temple's Treasure House, to which also the Rikishi deities from the temple gate have been moved for protection.

[Old sakura tree in front of Shojiji's gate]

After Shojiji, we decided to visit nearby Shoboji, a temple new to us, and to our surprise, here, too, the cherry trees were in full bloom...

The Main Hall of this little known and quiet Shingon temple featured some interesting statues, such as the main image on the altar, a Thousand-armed Kannon with three faces - besides the central countenance, two extra faces look over the Kannon's shoulders in an original configuration. This statue is from the early Kamakura period. From the temple's founding (in the late Nara period, by a disciple of the Chinese priest Ganjin) dates a large Yakushi statue. Finally, I also encountered an interesting "running Daikoku" image.


[Modern guardian statue under blossom canopy in Shoboji]

The garden of Shoboji is modern and characterized by the various large rocks which are meant to represent all kinds of animals. Such almost childish figurative thinking is far from traditional garden art, but happily you can see the rocks as just abstract elements - the resemblances with elephants and tigers are rather forced, anyway.


[Blossoming sakura tree and shakkei garden, Shoboji]

What makes the garden interesting is the shakkei, the "borrowed scenery" of the far-away Eastern Hills (Higashiyama - we are to the south here, so you can mainly see the low hills on which the Fushimi Inari Shrine stands) and, on the horizon, the imposing mountains that form the border between Kyoto and Shiga. On one of these stands the great Daigoji Temple.

It was masterful of the garden designer to plant just one slender cherry tree right in the middle of this scenery, as a foreground to the borrowed landscape. The rocks then form a sort of intermediaries that lift the eyes above the low garden wall towards the distant mountain scenery. Both Shojiji and Shoboji were very quiet, making this the ideal place to enjoy cherry blossoms.
Access: From JR Mukomachi or Hankyu Higashi-Muko Station, take a bus to Minami-Kasugamachi and then walk 15 min. Or take a bus to Rakusai-Kokomae and walk 20 min. There is about one bus per hour.

Note: Shojiji is also known for its maple leaves. In the immediate vicinity are two more places of interest, Gantokuji (Hobodaiin) which displays a national treasure Bodhisattva image of almost sensual beauty, and Oharano Jinja, a shrine set up as a local branch of the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, when the capital was transferred to Nagaokakyo in the late 8th c.